Randi Kreiss

Local immigrants: the things they carry


Let me tell you about Olyy.

But first let us peek behind the headlines and remember that some 1 million immigrants a year come to the U.S., seeking a better life. Add to that tens of thousands of undocumented people who stream across our southern border every year, and you have a snapshot of “coming to America” 2018. We sometimes forget that the anonymous waves of foreigners comprise real people, often fleeing poverty and violence. We forget, sometimes, that each of them carries a story.

I met Olyy at my local dog-grooming parlor, where I take Lilly Bee for her monthly haircut. For a couple of years, she was the friendly, puppy-loving young woman who greeted my dog with hugs and kisses, listened to my instructions and returned Lilly to me cleaned up and turned out.

Then, a few weeks ago, Olyy said she knew I worked for a newspaper, and she wondered if I could help her get the word out about San Pedro la Laguna, in her native country of Guatemala, where they have banned the use of plastic in an effort to lower levels of toxicity in local waters.

“I want people to be aware that we still have time to take care of our planet,” she said. “If a country like Guatemala, with lower levels of education … a really poor country has something like this, how come New York is not doing something similar?”

According to a video Olyy shared with me, it was Mayor Mauricio Mendez who launched the anti-plastic campaign in San Pedro la Laguna in 2016. The video explains that the tiny village has become a national leader in one of the world’s “most pressing environmental problems.”

The population of the entire region is 14,000, 90 percent of whom are indigenous Mayans.

Mendez secured approval for a ban on the sale and distribution of disposable plastic bags, straws and polystyrene containers. “When I took office,” he said, “the municipal landfill was saturated with plastics and most of the waste ended up in the lake.” The lake is their lifeline. “We needed to act fast,” the mayor said.

Now merchants who sell food in foam containers, or who distribute merchandise in plastic bags, face fines of 15,000 quetzales, approximately $2,000.

Olyy, who is 33, is working on a master’s degree in landscape architecture because, she says, she wants to learn more about land use and how to best use technology to locate and address sources of pollution. “After I obtain my master’s degree,” she said, “I intend to get my Ph.D. in entomology and learn how to work with insects to address pollution problems.”

She attends Farmingdale State College, and hopes to continue her studies at the City College of New York’s School of Architecture. Her dog-grooming work helps support her and her family and goes toward school tuition. “My mother left us when I was 2 years old,” she said, “so I was raised by my grandmother. … My father is an alcoholic and suffers with prostate cancer. My two brothers are the people I’ve been able to rely on, and they have taken care of me. They are helping me continue with my education.”

Her family in Guatemala was extremely poor, and she was the only one interested in education. Her brothers, she said, “are my closest friends and have been almost like parents to me, helping me through some incredibly difficult times.”

While Olyy and I were exchanging texts and e-mails last month, she suddenly left for Florida to help make a video with a volunteer group seeking aid for animals that were affected by a volcanic eruption near Antigua Guatemala, up in the mountains. More than 300 people are still missing and presumed dead. Her group is trying to save dogs and horses affected by the ash and lava that spewed from the crater.

In the States, she volunteers in Farmingdale, designing open-air “green” space for patients recovering from cancer.

Olyy came to America in 2007. She is still learning English, even as she works toward her college degree. Amid the complexities of welcoming asylum seekers, turning back undocumented foreigners and providing services for the sick, weary and impoverished thousands crossing into the U.S., we often forget that we all come from someplace else. The public attention on immigration trends toward the sensational: the criminals and the drugs and America’s intemperate response, including separating babies from their mothers.

Olyy didn’t want to talk politics. She wants to get on with her life, and improve the lives of others here and in her native country. The thing is, hers is not an extraordinary story. Change some of the facts and it’s the story of my grandmother, and perhaps yours.

Writing about Olyy made me look around my community this week with renewed appreciation for all the dreamers who dared make the journey to America. Thousands of first-generation immigrants work among us, multi-colored threads, strengthening the fabric of our daily lives.

Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.